Beauty and the Beast
By: Arlene Allen
I must begin by saying I am a huge Beauty and the Beast fan from the original fairy tale to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 black and white masterpiece La Belle et Le Bete, Disney’s 1991 animated feature and to the Broadway stage production. My expectations going in to this live action version were very high, with a slight dose of trepidation.
I was met by a beautiful film that more than exceeded any of my hopes. Yes, for the most part all of the elements of the animated film are there, but this is far more than a scene by scene recreation. This story delves deeper, fills in many plot gaps, gives us more of Belle’s and the Beast’s back stories and answers so many questions that both the original film and stage play left unanswered.
The film opens with a very realistic, pre- Revolution French castle ball hosted by the cold and arrogant Prince (Dan Stevens). This dance sequence is very important, as dance is one of the themes echoed throughout the film. Enter the Enchantress (Hattie Morahan), who is of course turned away and the Prince and the castle and all of those within are cursed. Part of this curse is that no one who ever knew of or loved anyone in the castle would forget all about them – which explains why there is a hulking castle only several miles from the village that no one seems to see or know about.
Segue into the opening bars of “Belle,” which has been tweaked to match this new, bold Belle (Emma Watson). Her reading tastes have certainly matured (she’s returning Romeo and Juliet to the library instead of Jack and the Beanstalk) and the blue jumper has been modified to a dress hitched up on one side, ballet flats traded in for boots. At the same time, Gaston (Luke Evans) is returning from the war (he gets a back story too) with his faithful toady Lefou (Josh Gad, who absolutely owns this role). He has no use for the village “rabbits,” as he calls them and at first it seems he actually admires Belle for more than her beauty.
Belle’s father Maurice (Kevin Kline) has been tweaked as well. Instead of an inventor he makes intricate music boxes, in part to help Belle travel vicariously to all of the places she dreams about. He’s heading out to a craft fair when he gets lost in the magical forest (and it is actually noted that it went from summer to winter rather inexplicably). There’s a small homage to the Cocteau film when Maurice first enters the Beast’s castle and his reason for being imprisoned is a throwback to the original fairy tale – he plucks a rose to bring back to Belle.
The next part we know – Belle rides out to save him, and makes the deal to take his place in the castle dungeon. Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) and Lumiere (Ewan MacGregor) step in and lead Belle to a magnificent bedroom, where she meets Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald). Belle’s first thought is to escape and she takes the cloth Madame has showered on her and starts to make a rope. The Beast, of course, is quite beastly and this sequence follows the animated film quite closely.
We get the grand spectacle of “Be Our Guest,” which has some decidedly quirky humor added. We have Belle sneaking off to the West Wing, finding the enchanted rose and being terrified by the Beast into running off. She does return to the castle, of course, to tend to the wounded Beast, but from that point on the storyline diverges. One of the things this tale has been accused of is that Belle has Stockholm Syndrome, where the one being held captive falls for their captor. Not so here. We see how and why Belle slowly falls for the Beast, including a mutual love of reading and the tragic loss of their mothers. This is pure movie magic.
A particular criticism of this film is the dramatic change in Belle’s dress, which I admit I didn’t think I’d like…until I saw why they changed it. The skirt looks like rose petals and roses are one of the recurring themes throughout the film. It is lovely in a way uniquely its own. The iconic “Beauty and the Beast” is sung by Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and their dance is one of contrast to the dark opening sequence. Meanwhile, back at the tavern, LeFou and Gaston mope musically to “Gaston” in a scene as energetic and twisted as “Master of the House” from Les Miserables.
Much has been made about LeFou being “openly gay” and in love with Gaston, so much that there have been attempts to ban the film in certain cities. Truthfully, if that had never been brought up no one under the age of thirteen would have thought that. LeFou was just a weird little toady, just as he was in the original. It is not over played or overstated. He gets a few more original and funny lines than his animated counterpart, but that’s about it.
Gaston’s true colors come out when Maurice shows up at the tavern ranting about the Beast and a castle. Gaston figures if he rescues Belle he’ll win her hand in marriage for certain, but of course Maurice can’t find the way back. Gaston gets infuriated and Maurice seals his fate by telling him he will never marry Belle. The lady in question is by then on her way back to the village with the magic mirror, leaving the Beast to sing an original song “Forever,” which hits like a sucker punch to the feels.
The “Kill the Beast” sequence is rather dark and frightening; the townsfolk are on a literal witch-hunt. Armed with pistols, Gaston takes down the Beast, but falls to his death as the castle crumbles beneath him. In another blow to the feels, we not only watch Belle cry for her beast, but see all of the castle personnel freeze into their non human forms. For a moment, even though the ending is a certain and it doesn’t feel like such a sure thing. But then we find out the true identity of…Wait! No, I’m not going to spoil that one. The curse is broken, everyone returns to their human forms and the film ends with a dance sequence that is a beautiful one-eighty from the opening.
In terms of vocal performances, Dan Stevens and Luke Evans are strong and powerful. I wish I could say Emma Watson was as well. She is good, but lacks the power of a seasoned musical performer. The film is a bit CGI heavy, which is not unexpected when talking furniture and knickknacks are involved, but the face captures of the actors are quite good. The 3D version is lovely, adding depth and texture to the film, although there are a few “pop out” moments that will make smaller children jump.
Final analysis: Beautifully and majestically retold, I found all of the pre-release criticisms to be nothing. This is a film for the ages, one not to be missed. Grade: A+
Rated PG, Running time 129 minutes (which never drags)